Internet Education: Reform or False Panacea?

Sherwood A. Dowling, National Museum of American Art, USA

The Internet has been identified as an infrastructure that offers an opportunity to improve and possibly reshape education. To determine the potential for such change, it is instructive to review similar past circumstances.

The promise

I think it is one of the most magnificent instruments for raising the quality of teaching, whether it be college teaching or elementary teaching (Milton S. Eisenhower, in Newsom, 1952, p. 50).
...great potential for an expanded contribution to enlightenment. As an instrument for general adult education, it could significantly upgrade the common culture... (H.K. Newburn, in Kurtz, 1959, p. vii). innovation has marched so quickly and confidently into the field of learning. It moves into the future of American education as a major resource (J. Hall, in Stanford University, 1962, p. 51).
A medium with so much potential, with so many needs to meet, and so many plans being made for it, is likely to continue to grow for a long period of time (U.S. Office of Education, in Stanford University, 1962, p. 3).

Today it is not possible to read Edupage without seeing an article about a new partnership to develop an educational application using the most current Internet tools. The above quotes, however, were not taken from Edupage or any other current technology periodical. These quotations refer to the technological panacea of the 1950s and early 1960s-television. In considering the whirlwind rush to implement education by Internet, it is instructive to review the similar rush to "save" education with the technological wonder of television.

Were the solutions television offered the educational community similar to or different from those being offered today by Internet providers? What lessons can be learned to avoid the failure of educational television?

Many of the advantages offered by Internet were seen as inherent to television. For example, educational television offered the opportunity to leverage expert teachers across a broader and larger student population and supported self-directed learning. Educational TV was also seen as supportive of universal education and promotion of new educational patterns (Kurtz, 1959; Stanford University, 1962; Burke, 1971). Finally, much like the recent call to reserve bandwidth for public purposes including education, television educators called for channels to be reserved for noncommercial use (Newsom, 1952).

Television's failure to transform education was not technological. Television failed to meet the pedagogical needs of the educational community and was viewed as enrichment rather than as an integral part of the educational process. If Internet education is to avoid a similar failure, it must be consistent with current and emerging educational practice. Educational television's model of "distance learning" must be replaced.

Television and the distance learning paradigm

With the advent of educational television (ETV), it became possible for the best teachers to reach many more students than otherwise possible. "Master" teachers could be broadcast simultaneously (and later, at any time using video tape) to any number of students or for continuing education. It was also now unnecessary for every school to purchase expensive laboratory equipment when an expert educator with all the necessary equipment could perform an experiment once for broadcast to all (Costello and Gordon, 1961).

Television is a broadcast medium based on one-way transmission. Thus, the distance learning paradigm developed into the delivery of instruction from one central location to multiple remote locations. While there have been some notable success stories (Rockman, 1991), the overall pattern of distance learning was set as one of broadcast instruction to passive recipients. One-way video instruction is nearly always viewed as enrichment and seldom as fundamental education (Means, et al., 1994).

ETV was also seen as a means for students and others wishing continuing education to pursue self-directed learning (Stanford University, 1962), even a means for general enlightenment (Kurtz, 1959). Unfortunately, self-directed ETV programs are generally characterized today as "drill and kill" exercises modeled on the assembly line. As for general enlightenment, even the Public Broadcasting Service, home of programs such as Reading Rainbow and Voyage of the Mimi are under attack because they are not self-supporting.

Educational reform, cognitive psychology, and constructivist education

Since the landmark publication of A Nation at Risk, most people in the United States are aware that the public school system is in a state of crisis. However, agreement that the school system was broken did not generate immediate agreement on how to remedy the situation. Recommendations ranged from calls for an anti-faddish return to fundamentals (Bennett, 1988) to naive calls to replace schools with privatized distance learning (Perelman, 1992).

Howard Gardner posited that "even when school appears to be successful, even when it elicits the performances for which it has apparently been designed, it typically fails to achieve its most important missions (Gardner, 1991, p. 3)." if guided by an invisible hand, schools all over the world have come to exhibit certain predictable features. They all focus on the introduction of complex symbolic or notational systems that require sustained concentration over long hours for mastery ... Regular drill, rote memorization, and recitation are featured. The ultimate utility of these skills is not an important concern of day-to-day schooling, ... the school experience is marked by an extreme dissociation from important events or palpable products in the life of the community" (Gardner, 1991, p. 129).

The educational community has responded rigorously since A Nation at Risk (David and Shields, 1991), and serious efforts are under way to reform our educational practices. Barbara Means has outlined components of educational reform at the system, school, and classroom levels.

Reform efforts at the classroom level have been most successful when informed by developments in cognitive psychology. The field of cognitive psychology is relatively new, beginning in the 1950s. Modern cognitive psychology draws on research in perception, pattern recognition, attention, memory, imagery, language, developmental psychology, thinking and intelligence (Gardner, 1985).

A leader in the movement to replace rote memorization of facts and formulas with development of higher-order thinking skills, Gardner and others integrated educational theory and practice with developments in cognitive psychology. Research in thinking and learning has shown that knowledge is, in fact, socially constructed (Jones, et al., 1987). Mastery must be based on a foundation of essential learning driven by the learner, not the curriculum.

Cognitive consistency is a natural tendency to maintain a world view that is logically consistent. Cognitive dissonance occurs when new information conflicts with an existing world view or knowledge base. A strong natural incentive exists to resolve cognitive dissonance and at this point true learning is most likely. A synthesis of these and other research findings in cognitive psychology has been codified in educational terms as "constructivist" education.

The following is drawn largely from Idol and Jones (1991) and Brooks and Brooks (1993).

In a traditional classroom, curriculum is presented part to whole, with emphasis on basic skills. Students are viewed as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured. In a traditional classroom, teachers behave in a didactic manner, disseminating facts and correct answers. Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued and activities rely heavily on textbooks and workbooks. In a traditional classroom, assessment of student learning is viewed as separate from teaching and occurs almost entirely through testing. Students work primarily alone.

In a constructivist classroom, learning is structured around primary concepts, whole to part, with emphasis on the big picture. Students are viewed as thinkers with emerging theories about the world. Lessons are not arbitrary, but built on issues relevant to the student. In a constructivist classroom, teachers behave in an interactive manner, mediating the environment for students. A guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. Pursuit of student questions and opinions is highly valued and activities rely heavily on primary sources of data and manipulative materials. In a constructivist classroom, assessment of student learning is interwoven with teaching and occurs through teacher observations of students at work and through student exhibitions and portfolios. Student work is often collaborative.

In a nutshell, traditional Western education is about memorizing information and learning how to recite or derive correct answers, while constructivist education is about conceptual understanding demonstrated through application, typically on projects using primary source materials. Constructivism is often characterized by Howard Gardner as an intellectual apprenticeship (Gardner, 1991).

The current educational reform movement embraces constructivist principles, incorporating them into a culture for learning consisting of heterogeneous student groups, given clear goals, administered locally by professionally trained and certified educators. The constructivist educational paradigm also incorporates many of the cognitive principles embraced by computer science. Together, then, emerging technology with educational theory in an environment of educational reform can support a new model of "educational telecomputing."

Educational telecomputing

Educational telecomputing, is the practice of using emerging technology to foster and extend the above characteristics of a constructivist classroom.

Given a basis in student-centered activities, educational telecomputing, by nature, is a grassroots undertaking. A bottom-up approach is not only consistent with the decentralized nature of the Internet, but also consistent with the current educational reform agenda. Means goes an extra step and asserts that activity-based technology projects can actually drive reform (Means et al., 1993).

The growth of the Internet has often been referred to as an example of "build it and they will come." In this case "they" are teachers and students. However, as originally premised, are "they" transforming the nature of education? McClintock characterizes the necessary involvement as a process of social construction:

... educators cannot conceptually plan or predictably implement a reconstructed system. They can, however, shape an emerging system over time, effectively constituting key features of it through a process of social construction, if they develop a concerted sense of shared directions. Coherent historical change wells up from many different acts that move parallel in time, spontaneously coordinating around an understanding of possibilities, at once emergent yet shared. (McClintock, 1996, par. 16.)

Educational telecomputing activities are, in fact, becoming more numerous on Internet. Harris' taxonomy of activity structures provides numerous examples of educational telecomputing projects developed by teachers and students at all levels of technological capability (Harris, 1994).

The development of educational telecomputing is fostered by guides such as Way of the Ferret by Harris and by numerous Internet sites linked to curricular materials. Ultimately though, successful implementation of educational telecomputing must also be based on tool development and meaningful evaluation techniques. An excellent beginning in this direction has been the publication of Plugging In: Choosing and Using Educational Technology by the Council for Educational Development and Research (Jones, et al., 1995). A derivative of the Department of Education's North Central Regional Educational Laboratory report Designing Learning and Technology for Educational Reform (Jones, et al., 1994), Plugging In provides educators with a planning framework for technology-enhanced programs that advance learning.

The social construction described by McClintock is generated not only by educators, but also by information providers such as libraries, cultural and health organizations, and museums. Many of these organizations have long established educational programs suitable for development of educational telecomputing activities.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA) established a program designed to integrate constructivist educational theory and technology. The museum's New Media Learning Environments program supports the remote use of museum resources by K-12 students and educators through teacher-developed activity-based curricular units.

New media learning environments

Early in this paper, it was argued that a principal failure of Educational Television was its lack of consistency with developing pedagogical practice and its perception as an enrichment activity. Also, that if Internet education is to avoid a similar failure, it must be consistent with educational reform and current pedagogical theory.

The educational reform movement is very much a decentralized, bottom-up phenomenon that emphasizes local development of meaningful curricula typified by the growing number of magnet schools. Similarly, the constructivist educational model emphasizes student projects that draw on primary source materials. To be successful, then, Internet education should support locally defined uses of net resources rather than providing "right answers" through packaged curricular presentations.

The NMAA's New Media Learning Environments program is built on the integration of remote access to the museum's collection and reference materials with locally developed activity-based curricula. The two most developed applications in this program are the Hispanic Art on Internet project and the Art and Technology Integration Project. General project information including excerpts from the grant requests funding these projects can be found at and

Hispanic art on the Internet

In cooperation with the Texas Education Network (TENET), the museum is developing an interactive webzine that draws on NMAA's rich collection of Hispanic art and provides curricular activities developed by and responsive to the needs of participating Texas educators. The project itself has been a constructivist activity with no predetermined outcome and characterized by participant collaboration.

TENET's webmaster, Gayle Gaston, spent July 1995 at NMAA in Washington, D.C., learning how museum resources are used as primary sources in K-12 project-based curricular modules and becoming familiar with the museum's collection of Latino art. Upon her return to Austin, Gayle recruited 17 teachers and 1 student to participate in the project. Participants are from geographically disperse schools and represent a range of grade levels and subjects.

In October 1995, a two-day project workshop was conducted for participants at TENET. The first day, Andrew Connors, NMAA's curator most responsible for the museum's Hispanic collection, provided a multimedia presentation on Latino art and culture, introduced participants to the museum's collection, and led discussions. The second day was devoted to small group activities focused on development of activity-based curricula using art as a primary resource. The brainstorming activity at the end of the day resulted in a list of nearly 20 curricular activities that drew on remote access to the museum's Hispanic art collection! It was decided that a webzine would be the most flexible application to explore Latino art and provide educators with a vehicle for presenting activity-based curricula.

TENET established and maintains a listserv to facilitate collaboration. In true constructivist fashion, even the webzine's name, ¡del Corazón! was determined collaboratively by participating teachers' students. The first issue of ¡del Corazón! features the art of Carmen Lomas Garza, Agueda Martínez, and Irvin Trujillo. Curricular activities include student expressions of personal dreams, exploration of numerous themes, and creation of a data base to record information associated with the creation of natural dyes. The webzine has a form-based page for site visitors to provide additional curricular activities based on the primary source materials in each issue. The first issue of ¡del Corazón! can be found at

Art and technology integration

In cooperation with Westside Community Schools and the School District of Grand Island (both near Omaha, Nebraska) and the University of Nebraska, Omaha, the museum is creating an information base of curricular units that use the museum's Internet-based resources.

Participating teachers were selected to cover the widest possible range of grades and subjects, from kindergarten to high school advanced-placement English. Participants from both school districts attended a workshop in Washington, D.C., the week of 10 July 1995. Much of the workshop was devoted to an introduction to the museum and its collection, NMAA's electronic and visual resources, and thematic/interdisciplinary approaches to museum objects. Other topics included constructivist education, practicing higher-order thinking through looking at art, and introduction to World Wide Web and Hypertext Markup Language. As participants in the Nebraska Department of Education's Prairie Visions Institute, many workshop participants were already familiar with interconnections among aesthetics, art criticism, art history, and creation.

Upon their return to Nebraska, participants were given technology training and in-service time to begin work on their curricular units. Projects range from "Wee Deliver" in-school postcards using downloaded museum images to thematic student activities based on subjects represented in the museum's collection such as Plains Indians and heros. Carl Clark, the Director of ARTnet (the Internet program of Prairie Visions), established a listserv to facilitate collaboration.

As the bulk of the museum's resources is not yet digitized, participants needed a means to search or browse museum resources and request digitization of materials appropriate to their curricular units. While the museum works on making a wider range of such resources available online, museum staff are acting as research assistants for participants. A webform was introduced to request and track research requests.

Even with research assistance, participants have sometimes found it difficult to develop curricular units at a distance. To facilitate the process, NMAA staff introduced the museum, its collection, and the constructivist learning model to 1996 participants in Omaha. This will provide more time during the ATI Summer Workshop in Washington for participants to engage in hands-on curricular development.

It is our hope that as a significant body of museum source materials is made available on Internet along with a growing collection of curricular examples that electronic visitors will be able to fully integrate our resources into their locally developed curricula.


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